An Epic Night of Opera – A SUDS Production of The Threepenny Opera
The Threepenny Opera (1928) is the play Bertolt Brecht is probably best remembered for. It tells the story of the roguish anti-hero, Mack the Knife. Set in Victorian London, Mack attracts the wrath of the city’s King of Beggars, Mr Peachum, by marrying his daughter. Through a series of underhanded tactic the criminal Mack is captured and brought to justice … well, almost.
Brecht, a champion of Marxism, presents a critique of capitalism: in his London everything is a business, beggars need a license to work the streets, Mack runs his gang like a company and even Peachum looks on his daughter as a piece of property. For all this however, there may be something more interesting happening in the script. The play presents a study of human weakness. Mr and Mrs Peachum are the masters of human nature: they know how to present their beggars to elicit sympathy from the population. Likewise they understand the lewd impulses which compel Mack, and they know how to exploit them. They also know how to turn his friends against him, not through any guile or charm, but by appealing to their base nature. No one’s loyalty is secure and all the characters are victims of their lower impulses – sex, money and self-preservation.
This is an ambitious play for a student group, nevertheless SUDS put in a good showing. Director Clemence Williams has obviously done her homework when it comes to Epic Theatre and she has her Verfremdungseffekt down. The actors address the audience, scene cards are employed, actors get doubled (to humorous effect), and the striping of the costumes at the end also works into this theme. None of this was overdone though and Williams seems to have hit a good balance with her deployment of the Brechtian techniques. Theatre in the round is always a bit of a gamble and on this occasion it has probably caused more issues than it has offered advantages, but thankfully this isn’t overly detrimental to the production. The set is sparse but even so at times it became somewhat cumbersome when the cast needed to make scene changes. Having said that there are some rather nice ideas in there too, notably the prison cell which descends on the fly, an unexpected and enjoyable surprise. If this production has a significant drawback regrettably it is the band. One wonders if a lone piano might have been a better choice. The band tended to overpower the singers making it difficult to follow the lyrics, even more unforgivable when the brass section was flat.
Thankfully the actors manage to compensate. Patrick Morrow as Macheath, London’s greatest and most notorious criminal was both suave and charismatic. Morrow seemed at ease as this morally bankrupt hero and managed to nicely balanced Macheath’s appeal whilst appearing capable of all the monstrosities he is known to have committed. Morrow also held his own as a singer, and was able to bring the comedic moments out into the open.
Finn Davis as Mr Peachum was a particular stand out. Davis brought a beautiful lyricism to Mr Peachum, and he was completely natural as the cruel businessman. Importantly, Davis produced a much needed gravity to the character, which made him highly persuasive as the conniving and hypocritical father and ‘villain’. As a singer Davis hit the notes with great confidence, and attacked the songs with fantastic weight. Davis also sported a hell’s angel beard, which added greatly to the power of his portrayal.
Another standout performance came from Caitlin West as Mrs Peachum. The slumming version of Lady Macbeth West was cold and hard as the mother of Polly and business partner of her husband. With a black trench coat and red lipstick, West could, with her eyes, pierce the soul of any who stood in her way. West was particularly impressive for matching the energy of Davis, making for a highly successful pairing. As a singer West carried the lyrics as she did the dialogue – with powerful intensity.
Julia Robertson was a wonderful addition as Polly Peachum. Polly can be a tricky character to get right, yet Robertson enabled Polly to smoothly transition from a young, naïve girl to a hardnosed, self-interested lover. Robertson was particularly impressive for subtly layering the character with comedic flourishes and was quite believable as an innocent early on, revealing Polly’s greedier side as the play progressed. As a singer Robertson successfully tackled the difficult yet highly satisfying ‘Pirate Jenny’ song (despite the band). Robertson found strength in actually responding to the lyrics, instead of just glossing over their meaning. In doing so, she proved a capable and engaging performer.
Special mention goes to Bridget Haberecht as Lucy Brown who was feisty and engaging. Whilst only really having one scene, Haberecht grabbed it by the throat and got the best out of it. As a singer Haberecht was haunting, and arguably produced one of the best singing performances. Another mention goes to Matt Bartlett as Tiger Brown, London’s chief of police and Lucy’s father. Bartlett was delightfully slippery and produced a fun filled performance. He too found his stride in the songs, with powerful projection and diction to match.
The ‘chorus’ contained some good performances too, especially that of Jem Rowe, Ian Ferrington and Daniel Hickie. Overall, the cast produced an enjoyably group driven production. The actors truly carried this show.
As far as student productions go, SUDS certainly have a professionalism that other societies sometimes struggle to ascertain. In this regard The Threepenny Opera holds together well as a performance. It is also impressive that the cast seems as comfortable acting as they do singing, something which isn’t always easy for young actors to accomplish. This is a solid production from a student group and they should be commended.
The Threepenny Opera is being performed at PACT theatre at 7pm 3rd-6th of July then again from the 10th-13th with 2pm matinees on Saturdays. For tickets and more information their site can be reached from here: http://thethreepennyopera2013.com/
All photos in this review by Stella Karver.